Marisa Borreggine, a PhD candidate at Harvard’s Earth and Planetary Sciences Department, has long wanted to pursue a career devoted to climate research. After studying oceanography at the University of Washington, Borreggine chose to come to Harvard to study sea level rise.
Arriving on campus five years ago, though, Borreggine was surprised to see the school’s ties to the fossil fuel industry — professors who consulted for the sector, research funded by energy majors, and, occasionally, emails about recruiting events for oil firms.
“I don’t think I expected it coming to Harvard,” said Borreggine, who uses they and them pronouns.
In late September, they got one of those emails, this time advertising a recruiting event for ExxonMobil, a company linked to more carbon emissions than almost any other in history. “ExxonMobil GeoScience is looking for employees and interns,” it read, inviting science students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard to attend.
Outraged, Borreggine forwarded the email to other student climate organizers on campus, and on the day of the recruiting event, some 30 activists from both schools filed in. As the recruiters began to speak, the activists stood up and brandished protest signs they had been hiding.
“Hey hey, ho ho, ExxonMobil’s got to go,” they chanted.
Recruiters tried to usher prospective hires out of the room to continue talking elsewhere, but the activists followed them out, chanting and singing. Eventually, the Exxon employees gave up. “We shut it down,” the activists shouted.
The disruption followed a similar one earlier the same week at Brown University. Protestors far outnumbered students looking for jobs at both events.
Efforts have also sprung up in the United Kingdom, where a student-led campaign called Fossil Free Careers is pushing universities to sever relationships with oil and gas companies and to adopt career policies that specifically exclude them. The campaign has won widespread student support, though so far just one institution, Birbeck College, University of London, has agreed to ban fossil fuel companies from recruiting.
Activists say that by allowing major polluters to recruit students on campus, schools are implicitly endorsing them, despite their massive role in the climate crisis and problematic practices like Exxon’s well-documented history of sowing doubt about climate science.
“It makes no sense that the university dedicated to truth and the pursuit of knowledge would host in good standing an oil company that stands against all of that,” said Isaac Slevin, an undergraduate student at Brown who leads the school’s chapter of the Sunrise Movement, an activist group advocating for political climate action, and organized thedisruption at Brown.
The disruptions come as young people appear increasingly reticent to work for fossil fuel companies. In a 2020 survey by the international professional services company PwC, a majority of millennials said they would avoid working in industries that have a negative image and saw fossil fuels as the most unappealing sector. Another survey, conducted by consulting firm EY in 2017, found that among 1,200 American millennials aged 20 to 35, 44 percent were not interested in careers in the industry.
Such attitudes seem to be taking a toll on the sector. Eighty percent of oil and gas industry recruiters reported that at least 10 percent of open jobs went unfilled for more than three months, according to a survey conducted by recruitment firm Brunel and Oilandgasjobsearch.com last year. Drilling and geoscience roles were the most difficult to fill, according to the survey.
Ilana Cohen, a Harvard undergraduate and lead campaigner with Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard who coordinated the Harvard and MIT student protest, said she thinks young people should stay away from oil industry jobs for not only moral reasons, but also because the energy transition will hopefully make fossil fuel firms obsolete.
“These are bad jobs,” she said. “In a decarbonizing economy, we can already see the writing on the walls.”
Jen Fentress, communications officer for MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, said her department “does not prohibit any specific employers from speaking with students where there has been student interest in careers with them in the past.”
Malcolm White, a seismology researcher at MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, attended the recruiting event to network with Exxon representatives and to seek opportunities for collaboration. He once wanted to pursue a career in fossil fuels, but recently has decided to focus on alternative forms of energy like geothermal and carbon capture. He isn’t currently looking to do so for an oil company, but he wouldn’t rule it out.
“If we can collaborate with industry partners to find economically viable solutions, then we stand a chance of actually solving the problem,” he said.
Laurent Demanet, director of the Earth Resources Laboratory at MIT, which facilitated the event, said that’s a position other students at MIT share.
“The profiles of our students range from those who align with the protesters, to the hopeful scientists who believe they can make a positive contribution from inside the company,” he said.
Thom Hersbach, an electrochemistry researcher at Stanford University, understands why climate-concerned scientists would want to work for oil companies and change them from the inside. Just three years ago, he was considering taking a job at Shell. But he says he’s seen no proof that well-intentioned people have been able to shift Big Oil’s behavior, so he decided against it.
“I have yet to see any compelling evidence that these companies are changing overall,” he said.